October 4, 2017

Princeton University Concerts Opens Season With Multimedia Phenomenon

By Nancy Plum 

Princeton University Concerts has innovatively combined different forms of media in the past, most notably a concert a few years ago featuring actress Meryl Streep and the Takács String Quartet fusing literature and music in one performance. To open the 124th season of Princeton University Concerts, The Emerson String Quartet joined forces with seven well-established actors for a “multimedia theatrical realization” of Anton Chekhov’s story The Black Monk in a fantasy also exploring the lives of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Russian leader Josef Stalin. 

Co-commissioned by Princeton University Concerts, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and Tanglewood Music Festival, Shostakovich and the Black Monk weaved a tale of Shostakovich’s 50-year obsession with creating an opera from Chekhov’s 1893 story depicting the last two tragic years of the life of a fictitious scholar. Shostakovich and the Black Monk took the audience through multiple decades of the composer’s life, as narrated by an elderly Shostakovich, aided by six actors portraying characters from both the composer’s past and Chekhov’s story. Most significant among these characters were Shostakovich’s wives and Josef Stalin, whose regime and politics had a major impact on the composer’s career. As Stalin, actor Jay O. Sanders well conveyed the omnipresent Stalin who continually loomed in the compositional mind of Shostakovich, dynamically and intensely played by Tony award-winning actor Len Cariou. Sanders’ portrayal was such that when his character told Shostakovich “I shall be watching — always,” there was no doubt that this would be the case.  Cariou commanded the stage as Shostakovich, fending off a variety of perceived demons while producing some of the most impactful music of the 20th century.

The other five actors — Evelyn McGee-Colbert, Alex Glossman, Paul Murphy, Linda Setzer, and Ali Breneman — moved time forward well by recreating characters at different ages from both the story and real life. These roles were all strictly dramatic, although Breneman had several singing passages, which she presented with a clear and fluid soprano voice.

The music in this production came from the Emerson String Quartet, whose violinist Philip Setzer conceived the project and brought it to the attention of writer and director James Glossman. Sitting in the middle of a square multi-level set, the Emerson Quartet both introduced and closed the theatrical fantasy with movements from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14 in F-Sharp Major. Premiered in 1973, this quartet was part of the composer’s original plan to set the Chekhov story in operatic form. Quartet No. 14 provided an underpinning to the show, as the Emerson Quartet musicians played the mournful melodic lines elegantly and clearly captured inner dialogs among the instruments. Especially effective was the second movement Adagio played under a soliloquy of Shostakovich’s wife Irina. Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins flowed in and out of the work seamlessly as a musical unit, well linking Shostakovich’s musical effects to the action on the stage.

The conflict between Shostakovich and Stalin was a strong secondary story to the Chekhov tale, and was consistently emphasized by the music. Sharp bowings from the violins accentuated Shostakovich’s frustration with composing in a repressive regime, and cellist Watkins often took the melodic lead in particularly dramatic or poignant scenes.

In his operatic plans for Chekhov’s work, Shostakovich quotes the Angel Serenade of 19th-century Italian cellist and composer Gaetano Braga, a work also referenced by Chekhov. The Emerson Quartet played its own arrangement of this piece for soprano and string quartet within the production, providing Breneman the opportunity to add emotion and romance to scenes. Snippets from other Shostakovich string quartets could be heard through the concert, emphasizing specific dramatic moments or providing subtle references to Soviet history.

Christopher and Justin Swader’s almost gothic scenic design reminded the audience of the dark period of Russian history in which both Chekhov and Shostakovich worked, and the visuals presented on a screen at the back of the stage were primarily authentic photographs from the lives of the characters. As a multimedia production, Shostakovich and the Black Monk effectively combined ensemble theater with the best of chamber music.

Editor’s Note: In the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s September 16 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the Westminster Symphonic Choir was prepared by Dr. Ryan Brandau not by Joe Miller, as was reported.